White House struggles to defend Obama healthcare claim

The White House on Tuesday struggled to defend President Obama’s 2009 claim that people could keep their old health insurance under ObamaCare as thousands of people received notifications that their insurance companies were dropping their plans.

White House press secretary Jay Carney on Tuesday argued that people were only forced from their insurance if their health insurance companies no longer offered their plans.

“If you've kept it, you can keep it forever, as long as your insurer offers it,” Carney said on Tuesday.

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But many insurers have stopped offering plans that do not comply with regulations issued by the Health and Human Services Department outlining basic levels of coverage. As a result, many consumers who currently buy their own health insurance will not be able to keep the plans they are enrolled in.

Republicans on Tuesday argued this flies in the face of Obama’s 2009 promise that “if you like your health plan, you will be able to keep your health plan” under the new law.

More recently, Obama said that if someone already had health insurance, “you will keep your health insurance.”

“This is really, really troubling, I believe, for all the American people,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said Tuesday after a meting of the House GOP conference.

 Waiving a letter that he said a Virginia constituent had received from Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield informing him that because of the requirements of the new law, his insurance plan would no longer be available, Cantor said the ObamaCare problems run “much deeper than just the website.”

“If the president knew these letters were coming and still indicated that you could keep your healthcare plan if you liked it, now that raises some serious questions about the sales job of ObamaCare,” he said.

The people getting letters in the mail informing them that their health insurance is no longer offered are among the approximately 5 percent of people who purchase health insurance on their own.

Such consumers typically purchase year-long contracts with insurance companies for coverage. Many have changed their contracts since the healthcare act was signed into law in 2010, or have seen their insurance companies significantly change the terms of their coverage.

A number of these plans do not satisfy basic requirements of the healthcare law, which requires providers to offer specific “essential” benefits — like free preventive care — to qualify as acceptable. 

Insurers are sending out cancellation notices to those consumers notifying them that they no longer offer the same plan because it doesn't comply.

The White House is arguing that this is a small subset of potential consumers, and that if their current policies don’t cut it, they can gain access to a superior plan through the online healthcare exchanges, where they might also qualify for federal subsidies.

But those healthcare plans are often more expensive than the plans being cancelled.

The White House says that increased cost will be offset by tax subsidies for many individuals who currently pay full price for their coverage. And the administration insists that consumers who enrolled in a plan before the healthcare bill was signed into law will be “grandfathered in," even if their plans don’t qualify, as long as there haven’t been any changes to the plan.

Republicans accuse Obama and the administration of misleading the public, and the controversy has become another difficult flashpoint on healthcare for the White House, which has suffered through a month-long ObamaCare rollout plagued by setbacks.

Some Republicans argue the canceled health plans show that the law as a whole will continue to surprise consumers through a series of “rude awakenings,” as Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) called them at a House Ways and Means Committee hearing on Tuesday.

The controversy has put Democrats in the difficult position of either acknowledging that the president made a misleading statement, or parsing the argument into something more nuanced.

Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) on Tuesday admitted that Democrats knew all along that some patients would lose their health insurance plans under the new law, but he defended the change by arguing that those patients would ultimately benefit by getting better insurance, many of them at a lower price than they currently pay.

Still, Hoyer sensed that a backlash against his admission was coming. “I'm dying to see the headlines,” he said as he left his weekly press conference.

On a Tuesday conference call with reporters, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) spokeswoman Julia Bataille, whose agency is responsible for implementing the law, was peppered with questions about the administration’s claim.

“There’s nothing in the healthcare law that would make insurers force people out of plans that consumers were in before the law passed,” Battaille said, whose claim was repeatedly challenged by reporters.